How To Cook Perfect Corn

Melissa Block gets the run down on how to cook perfect corn from Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn. Fussell is also a descendant of Nebraskan corn farmers.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Maybe you've peeled back the husks, pulled off the stringy silk and have a beautiful pile of fresh corn ready to be cooked. And then what do you do?

This question came up here the other day: What's the perfect way to cook an ear of corn? Well, food writer Betty Fussell is going to help us with that. She wrote the book on corn, its history and mythology, titled "The Story of Corn." Betty Fussell, welcome to the program.

Ms. BETTY FUSSELL (Author, "The Story of Corn"): Thank you, Melissa, thank you for corn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Thank you for corn. What's your method? What's your favorite way to cook corn?

Ms. FUSSELL: Well, your grandparents would have said 10 minutes, your parents would have said radical, three minutes, and I say 50 seconds. But that's - you bring it to - your ears of corn to boil. First, you make a big pot of water, as if you were boiling spaghetti. So all you're doing is dipping the corn in just to heat it up. It'll heat quickly if you have a big pot, and take it out and slather the butter on and then the butter will melt - great.

But you still get the crispness. You don't want mushy sweet corn.

BLOCK: So 10 minutes, you would say just beyond the pale.

Ms. FUSSELL: Beyond the pale because you're not eating your grandparents' corn. You're eating super-super-duper-sweet corn that has been engineered over the last 20 years to be sweeter, sweeter and sweeter. So it has almost no starch content at all. It's an entirely different from the country gentlemen, the (unintelligible), the silver queen of your grandparents.

BLOCK: Now, my mother has taught me put sugar in the water.

Ms. FUSSELL: Never put salt because it toughens the skin.

BLOCK: Aha, so you're a sugar advocate?

Ms. FUSSELL: No because it's already - you know, if you can do a taste test, and if you get somebody who's growing heritage corn of even 20 years ago and then get a typical corn today, you'll notice a huge difference in super sweetness. That's why you don't need to add sugar to the water.

BLOCK: Okay, now there are proponents of microwaving and grilling. What do you think about that?

Ms. FUSSELL: I think microwave does well with corn. And you put it on the highest heat that your microwave will do and just two or three minutes.

BLOCK: And on the grill, what do you think?

Ms. FUSSELL: Well, the grill, I - because I live in the city, I take the husk off and grill it directly over the flame, a gas flame. It's the easiest way, but it alarms some people.

BLOCK: You could grill it, I guess, in the husks, too, right?

Ms. FUSSELL: You can grill it in the husk, but when you grill in the husk, you're in effect steaming it. You know, the old-fashioned way was to, you know, soak the corn so it's nice and wet, so it doesn't burn. But in fact you're steaming the kernels inside their lovely green husks.

I like the grill taste. So if I had an outdoor grill, then I still like to strip the husks off and do it directly.

BLOCK: Put it right on there, for how long?

Ms. FUSSELL: Put it right on there. It depends how hot your grill is, you know, the usual things that again, you're just heating the kernels enough for whatever you're going to slather on, including things like olive oil, just chili and lime and salt, the way the Mexicans do. Mayonnaise and chili is wonderful. But, you know, you want the kind of liquidy thing or a pesto, herb butter, olive oil with herbs, you know, wonderful.

BLOCK: I think we're all getting hungry right around now, Betty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FUSSELL: I'm always hungry for sweet corn. It's just the major thing is to get the very best, freshest sweet corn you can.

BLOCK: Well, Betty Fussell, have a great Fourth of July weekend, and I'm guessing there's going to be some corn involved for you.

Ms. FUSSELL: Oh, I do hope so, along with the fireworks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Betty Fussell is the author of "The Story of Corn." Betty, thanks so much.

Ms. FUSSELL: Thank you, Melissa, happy Fourth.

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